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History of Crete

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History of Crete

A fresco found at the Minoan site of Knossos, indicating a sport or ritual of "bull leaping", the dark skinned figure is a man and the two light skinned figures are women

The History of Crete goes back to the 7th millennium BC, preceding the ancient Minoan civilization by more than four millennia. The Minoan civilization was the first civilization in Europe and the first, in Europe, to build a palace.

After the Minoan civilization was devastated by the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Venetian Republic, the Ottoman Empire, autonomous state, and the modern state of Greece.


  • Prehistoric Crete 1
  • Minoan-Mycenaean Crete 2
  • Classical, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Arab Crete 3
  • Venetian Crete (1205–1669) 4
  • Ottoman Crete (1669–1898) 5
    • Greek War of Independence (1821) 5.1
  • Modern Crete 6
    • Cretan State 6.1
      • World War II 6.1.1
      • Battle of Greece 6.1.2
      • Battle of Crete 6.1.3
      • The Cretan Resistance 6.1.4
      • Liberation 6.1.5
  • Other notable historical events 7
    • The Black Death 7.1
  • See also 8
  • Further reading 9
  • References 10
  • Sources 11

Prehistoric Crete

Excavations in South Crete in 2008–2009 led by T.F. Strasser (Providence College, R.I., USA) revealed stone tools at least 130,000 years old. This was a sensational discovery as the previously accepted earliest sea crossing in the Mediterranean was thought to occur around 12,000 BC. The stone tools found in the Plakias region of Crete include hand axes of the Acheulean type made of quartz . It is believed that pre-Homo sapiens hominids from Africa crossed to Crete on rafts.[1][2][3][4]

In the neolithic period, some of the early influences upon the development of Cretan culture arise from the Cyclades and from Egypt; cultural records are written in the undeciphered script known as "Linear A". The archaeological record of Crete includes superb palaces, houses, roads, paintings and sculptures. Early Neolithic settlements in Crete include Knossos and Trapeza.

Because of a lack of written records, estimates of Cretan 7th millennium BC onwards.

The native fauna of Crete included pygmy hippo, pygmy elephant Paleoloxodon chaniensis, dwarf deer Praemegaceros cretensis, giant rodents and insectivores as well as badger, beech marten and a kind of terrestrial otter. Large carnivores were lacking. Most of these animals died out at the end of the last ice-age. Humans played a part in this extinction, which occurred on other medium to large Mediterranean islands as well, for example on Cyprus, Sicily and Majorca. Crete's religious symbols included the dove, lily and double-headed ax.

Remains of a settlement found under the Bronze Age palace at Knossos date to the 7th Millennium BC.

The first settlers introduced cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and dogs, as well as domesticated cereals and legumes.

Up to now, Knossos remains the only aceramic site. The settlement covered approximately 350,000 square metres. The sparse animal bones contain the above-mentioned domestic species as well as deer, badger, marten and mouse: the extinction of the local megafauna had not left much game behind.

Neolithic pottery is known from Knossos, Lera Cave and Gerani Cave. The Late Neolithic sees a proliferation of sites, pointing to a population increase. In the late Neolithic, the donkey and the rabbit were introduced to the island, deer and agrimi hunted. The Kri-kri, a feral goat, preserves traits of the early domesticates. Horse, fallow deer and hedgehog are only attested from Minoan times onwards.

Minoan-Mycenaean Crete

Crete was the centre of Europe's most ancient civilization, the Minoans. Tablets inscribed in Linear A have been found in numerous sites in Crete, and a few in the Aegean islands. The Minoans established themselves in many islands besides Ancient Crete: secure identifications of Minoan off-island sites include Kea, Kythera, Milos, Rhodes, and above all, Thera (Santorini).

Archaeologists ever since Sir Arthur Evans have identified and uncovered the palace-complex at Knossos, the most famous Minoan site. Other palace sites in Crete such as Phaistos have uncovered magnificent stone-built, multi-story palaces containing drainage systems,[5] and the queen had a bath and a flushing toilet. The expertise displayed in the hydraulic engineering was of a very high level. There were no defensive walls to the complexes. By the 16th century BC pottery and other remains on the Greek mainland show that the Minoans had far-reaching contacts on the mainland. In the 16th century a major earthquake caused destruction on Crete and on Thera that was swiftly repaired.

By about the 15th century BC a massive volcanic explosion known as the Minoan eruption blew the island of Thera apart, casting more than four times the amount of ejecta as the explosion of Krakatoa and generating a tsunami in the enclosed Aegean that threw pumice up to 250 meters above sea level onto the slopes of Anaphi, 27 km to the east. Any fleet along the north shore of Crete was destroyed and John Chadwick suggests that the majority of Cretan fleets had kept the island secure from the Greek-speaking mainlanders. The sites, save Knossos, were destroyed by fires. Mycenaeans from the mainland took over Knossos, rebuilding some parts to suit them. They were in turn subsumed by a subsequent Dorian migration.

Classical, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Arab Crete

In the Classical and Hellenistic period Crete fell into a pattern of combative city-states, harboring pirates. Gortyn, Kydonia (Chania) and Lyttos challenged the primacy of ancient Knossos, preyed upon one another, invited into their feuds mainland powers like Macedon and its rivals Rhodes and Ptolemaic Egypt, a situation that all but invited Roman interference. Ierapytna (Ierapetra) gained supremacy on eastern Crete.

In 88 BC Mithridates VI of Pontus on the Black Sea, went to war to halt the advance of Roman hegemony in the Aegean. On the pretext that Knossos was backing Mithradates, Marcus Antonius Creticus attacked Crete in 71 BC and was repelled. Rome sent Quintus Caecilius Metellus with three legions to the island. After a ferocious three-year campaign Crete was conquered for Rome in 69 BC, earning this Metellus the agnomen "Creticus." At the archaeological sites, there seems to be little evidence of widespread damage associated with the transfer to Roman power: a single palatial house complex seems to have been razed. Gortyn seems to have been pro-Roman and was rewarded by being made the capital of the joint province of Creta et Cyrenaica.

Gortyn was the site of the largest Christian basilica on Crete, the Basilica of Saint Titus, dedicated to the first Christian bishop in Crete, to whom Paul addressed one of his epistles. The church was begun in the 1st century. As revealed in the Epistle to Titus in the New Testament and confirmed by Cretan poet Epimenides the people of Crete were considered by these Christians to be liars and gluttons. (Note: Epimenides was a poet in the 6th century BC. Paul cited him in Titus 1:12.)

Crete continued to be part of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, a quiet cultural backwater, until it fell into the hands of Iberian Muslims under Abu Hafs in the 820s, who established a piratical emirate on the island. The archbishop Cyril of Gortyn was killed and the city so thoroughly devastated it was never reoccupied. Candia (Chandax, modern Heraklion), a city built by the Iberian Muslims, was made capital of the island instead.

The Emirate of Crete became a center of Muslim piratical activity in the Aegean, and a thorn on Byzantium's side. Successive campaigns to recover the island failed until 961, when Nikephoros Phokas reconquered Crete for the Byzantine Empire and made it into a theme.[6] The Byzantines held the island until the Fourth Crusade (1204). In its aftermath, possession of the island was disputed between the Genoese and the Venetians, with the latter eventually solidifying their control by 1212. Despite frequent revolts by the native population, the Venetians retained the island until 1669, when the Ottoman Turks took possession of it.

(The standard survey for this period is I.F. Sanders, An archaeological survey and Gazetteer of Late Hellenistic, Roman and Early Byzantine Crete, 1982)

  • , November 1995History TodayAnnette Bingham, "Crete's Roman past: excavations yield antiquities from the Roman period,"

Venetian Crete (1205–1669)

Venetian propaganda during the Siege: Il regno tutto di Candia, Marco Boschini, 1651

In the partition of the Byzantine empire after the capture of Constantinople by the armies of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, Crete was eventually acquired by Venice, which held it for more than four centuries (the "Kingdom of Candia").

The most important of the many rebellions that broke out during that period was the one known as the revolt of St. Titus. It occurred in 1363, when indigenous Cretans and Venetian settlers exasperated by the hard tax policy exercised by Venice, overthrew official Venetian authorities and declared an independent Cretan Republic. The revolt took Venice five years to quell.

During Venetian rule, the Greek population of Crete was exposed to Renaissance culture. A thriving literature in the Cretan dialect of Greek developed on the island. The best-known work from this period is the poem Erotokritos by Vitsentzos Kornaros (Βιτσένζος Κορνάρος). Another major Cretan literary figure was Nicholas Kalliakis (1645–1707), a Greek scholar and philosopher who flourished in Italy in the 17th Century.[7]

Erophile. The painter Domenicos Theotocopoulos, better known as El Greco, was born in Crete in this period and was trained in Byzantine iconography before moving to Italy and later, Spain.[8]

Ottoman Crete (1669–1898)

Ottoman siege of Candia
Crete or Candia in 1861

During the Cretan War (1645–1669), Venice was pushed out of Crete by the Ottoman Empire, with most of the island lost after the siege of Candia (1648–1669), possibly the longest siege in history. The last Venetian outpost on the island, Spinalonga, fell in 1718, and Crete was a part of the Ottoman Empire for the next two centuries. There were significant rebellions against Ottoman rule, particularly in Sfakia. Daskalogiannis was a famous rebel leader. One result of the Ottoman conquest was that a sizeable proportion of the population gradually converted to Islam, with its tax and other civic advantages in the Ottoman system. Contemporary estimates vary, but on the eve of the Greek War of Independence as much as 45% of the population of the island may have been Muslim.[9]

Some of them were crypto-Christians who converted back to Christianity; others fled Crete because of the unrest. By the last Ottoman census in 1881, Christians were 76% of the population, and Muslims (usually called "Turks" regardless of language, culture, and ancestry) only 24%. Christians were over 90% of the population in 19/23 of the districts of Crete, but Muslims were over 60% in the three large towns on the north coast, and in Monofatsi.[10]

Greek War of Independence (1821)

The Greek War of Independence began in 1821 and Cretan participation was extensive. An uprising by Christians met with a fierce response from the Ottoman authorities and the execution of several bishops, regarded as ringleaders. Between 1821 and 1828, the island was the scene of repeated hostilities. The Muslims were driven into the large fortified towns on the north coast and it would appear that as many as 60% of them died from plague or famine while there. The Cretan Christians also suffered severely, losing around 21% of their population in the 1830s.

After Greece achieved its independence, Crete became an object of contention as the Christian part of its population revolted several times against Ottoman rule. Revolts in 1841 and 1858 secured some privileges, such as the right to bear arms, equality of Christian and Muslim worship, and the establishment of Christian councils of elders with jurisdiction over education and customary law. Despite these concessions, the Christian Cretans maintained their ultimate aim of union with Greece, and tensions between the Christian and Muslim communities ran high. Thus, in 1866 the great Cretan Revolt began.

The uprising, which lasted for three years, involved volunteers from Greece and other European countries, where it was viewed with considerable sympathy. Despite early successes of the rebels, who quickly confined the Ottomans to the northern towns, the uprising failed. The Ottoman Grand Vizier A'ali Pasha personally assumed control of the Ottoman forces and launched a methodical campaign to retake the rural districts, which was combined with promises of political concessions, notably by the introduction of an Organic Law, which gave the Cretan Christians equal (in practice, because of their superior numbers, majority) control of local administration. His approach bore fruits, as the rebel leaders gradually submitted. By early 1869, the island was again under Ottoman control.

During the Pact of Halepa. Crete became a semi-independent parliamentary state within the Ottoman Empire under an Ottoman Governor who had to be a Christian. A number of the senior "Christian Pashas" including Photiades Pasha and Kostis Adosidis Pasha ruled the island in the 1880s, presiding over a parliament in which liberals and conservatives contended for power.

Disputes between the two powers however led to a further insurgency in 1889 and the collapse of the Pact of Halepa arrangements. The international powers, disgusted at what seemed to be factional politics, allowed the Ottoman authorities to send troops to the island and restore order but did not anticipate that Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II would use this as a pretext to end the Halepa Pact Constitution and instead rule the island by martial-law. This action led to international sympathy for the Cretan Christians and to a loss of any remaining acquiescence among them for continued Ottoman rule. When a small insurgency began in September 1895, it spread quickly, and by the summer of 1896 the Ottoman forces had lost military control of most of the island.

A new Cretan insurrection in 1897 led to the Ottoman Empire declaring war on Greece. However, the Prince George of Greece as first governor-general of an autonomous Crete, effectively detached from the Ottoman Empire, on 9 December 1898.

Modern Crete

Cretan State

Flag of the Cretan State (1898–1908)

Turkish forces were expelled in 1898, and the independent Cretan State (Official Greek name: Κρητική Πολιτεία), headed by Prince George of Greece, was founded.

Prince George was replaced by Alexandros Zaimis in 1906, and in 1908, taking advantage of domestic turmoil in Turkey as well as the timing of Zaimis's vacation away from the island, the Cretan deputies declared union with Greece.[11] But this act was not recognized internationally until 1913 after the Balkan Wars. By the Treaty of London, Sultan Mehmed V relinquished his formal rights to the island.

In December, the Greek flag was raised at the Firkas fortress in Chania, with Eleftherios Venizelos and King Constantine in attendance, and Crete was unified with mainland Greece. The Muslim minority of Crete initially remained in the island but was later relocated to Turkey under the general population exchange agreed in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne between Turkey and Greece.

One of the most important figures to emerge from the end of Ottoman Crete was the liberal politician Eleftherios Venizelos, probably the most important statesman of modern Greece. Venizelos was an Athens-trained lawyer who was active in liberal circles in Chania, then the Cretan capital. After autonomy, he was first a minister in the government of Prince George and then his most formidable opponent.

In 1910 Venizelos transferred his career to Athens, quickly became the dominant figure on the political scene and in 1912, after careful preparations for a military alliance against the Ottoman Empire with Serbia, Montenegro, and Bulgaria, allowed Cretan deputies to take their place in the Greek Parliament. This was treated as grounds for war by Turkey but the Balkan allies won a series of sweeping victories in the hostilities that followed (see Balkan Wars). The Turks were effectively defeated in the ensuing war and were forced out of the Balkans and Thrace by the Alliance, except for the borders which Turkey continues to hold to this day.

World War II

Battle of Greece

In 1939, the United Kingdom guaranteed military aid to Greece if its territorial integrity was threatened.[12] The priority of the United Kingdom was to prevent Crete from falling into enemy hands, because the island could be used to defend Egypt, (the Suez Canal and the route to India).[13] British troops landed on Crete with the consent of the Greek Government from 3 November 1940, in order to make the 5th Greek Division of Crete available for the Albanian front.

The invasion of mainland Greece by the Axis powers began on 6 April 1941 and was complete within a few weeks despite the intervention of the armies of the Commonwealth along with Greece. King George II and the Government of Emmanouil Tsouderos were forced to flee Athens and took refuge in Crete on April 23. Crete was also the refuge of Commonwealth troops that fled from the beaches of Attica and the Peloponnese to Crete to organize a new front of resistance.

Battle of Crete

After the conquest of mainland Greece, Germany turned to Crete and the last stage of the Balkans campaign. After a fierce and bloody conflict between Nazi Germany and the Allies (United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, and Greece) that lasted ten days (between the 20 and 31 May 1941), the island fell to the Germans.

On the morning of 20 May 1941, Crete was the theater of the first major airborne assault in history. The Third Reich launched an airborne invasion of Crete under the code name of "Operation Mercury". 17,000 paratroopers under the command of General Kurt Student were dropped at three strategic locations with airfields: Maleme, Heraklion, and Rethymnon. Their goal was the capture and control of the three airfields to allow the arrival of reinforcements airlifted by the Luftwaffe from mainland Greece to bypass the Royal Navy and the Hellenic Navy who still controlled the seas.

On 1 June 1941 the Allies completely evacuated the island of Crete. Despite the victory of the German invaders, the elite German paratroopers suffered such heavy losses, from the resistance of the Allied troops and civilians, that Adolf Hitler forbade further airborne operations of such large scale for the rest of the war.[14]

The Cretan Resistance

Murder of Greek civilians in Kondomari by German paratroopers in 1941

From the first days of the invasion, the local population organized a resistance movement, participating widely in guerrilla groups and intelligence networks. The first resistance groups formed in the Cretan mountains as early as June 1941. In September 1943, a memorable battle between the troops of occupation resistance fighters led by "Kapetan" Bandouvas in the region of Syme resulted in the deaths of eighty-three German soldiers and another thirteen were taken as prisoners. There were reprisals for resistance, German officers routinely used firing squads against Cretan civilians and razed villages to the ground. Standing out amongst the atrocities, are the holocausts of Viannos and Kedros in Amari, the destruction of Anogia and Kandanos and the massacre of Kondomari.[15]


By late 1944 German forces were withdrawing from Greece to avoid being cut off by the advancing Russian army moving west across Europe. By the end of September German and Italian troops began withdrawing from Crete, and on October 13 both Rethymon and Heraklion were liberated as the occupying forces were withdrawn to the Chania area.

On May 9, 1945 the German Commander signed an unconditional surrender at the Villa Ariadne at Knossos, effective “10 o'clock Greenwich Mean Time on the tenth day of May 1945”[16]

Other notable historical events

The Black Death

As a result of plagues of the Black Death, many Cretans migrated overseas during difficult periods on the island, some acquiring great fortune abroad, such as Constantine Corniaktos[17] (c. 1517–1603) who became one of the richest people in Eastern Europe.[18]

See also

Further reading

  • Hopkins, Adam Crete : its past, present and people Faber 1977 ISBN 0-571-10411-8
  • McKee, Sally Uncommon Dominion : Venetian Crete and the Myth of Ethnic Purity University of Pennsylvania Press 2000 ISBN 0-8122-3562-2
  • On Crete, New Evidence of Very Ancient Mariners by John Wilford, The New York Times, February 15, 2010


  1. ^ Team Led by PC Faculty Member Finds Evidence of Earliest Seafaring by Human Ancestors, Providence College.
  2. ^ vol. 79, pp. 145–190.Hesperia (The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens),Strasser F. Thomas et al. (2010) Stone Age seafaring in the Mediterranean,
  3. ^ Wilford, J.N., On Crete, New Evidence of Very Ancient Mariners The New York Times, 15 Feb 2010.
  4. ^ Bruce Bower, Hominids Went Out of Africa on Rafts Wired Science, January 8, 2010.
  5. ^ , The Modern Antiquarian (2007)Phaistos FieldnotesC.Michael Hogan,
  6. ^ Panagiotakis, Introduction, p. XVI.
  7. ^ Rose, Hugh James; Rose, Henry John; Wright, Thomas (1857). A new general biographical dictionary, Volume 5. T. Fellowes. p. 425.  
  8. ^ Lathrop C. Harper (1886). Catalogue / Harper (Lathrop C.) inc., New York, Issue 232. Lathrop C. Harper, Inc. p. 36.  
  9. ^ Excerpts from William Yale, The Near East: A modern history by (Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 1958)
  10. ^ A. Lily Macrakis, Cretan Rebel: Eleftherios Venizelos in Ottoman Crete, Ph.D. Dissertation, Harvard University, 1983.
  11. ^ Ion, Theodore P., "The Cretan Question," The American Journal of International Law, April, 1910, pp. 276–284
  12. ^ Joëlle Dalègre, op. cit., p.20
  13. ^ Van Creveld, op. cit., p. 67.
  14. ^ Beevor, op. cit., p. 231
  15. ^ Beevor, Antony. Crete: The Battle and the Resistance, John Murray Ltd, 1991. Penguin Books, 1992. ISBN 0-14-016787-0.
  16. ^ Constantin E. Mamalakis. Crete during the Second World War. Speech at the Historical Museum of Crete 25 June 2009
  17. ^ Vasylʹ Mudryĭ, Naukove tovarystvo im. Shevchenka, Shevchenko Scientific Society (U.S.) (1962). Lviv: a symposium on its 700th anniversary. New York. p. 175.  
  18. ^ I︠A︡roslav Dmytrovych Isai︠e︡vych (2006). Voluntary brotherhood: confraternities of laymen in early modern Ukraine. Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies Press. p. 47.  


  • Panagiotakis, Nikolaos M. (1987). "Εισαγωγικό Σημείωμα ("Introduction")". In Panagiotakis, Nikolaos M. Crete, History and Civilization (in Greek) I. Vikelea Library, Association of Regional Associations of Regional Municipalities. pp. XI–XX. 
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